Science writing is one of the most exciting niches in journalism–science writers get to travel, meet intelligent and interesting people and report on new developments from the dramatic and groundbreaking to the quirky and peculiar. Science writers may specialize in one of the traditional natural and physical sciences–biology, geology, physics, and chemistry–or write about anthropology, archeology, medicine and health, engineering, space and planetary science, mathematics or the environment.
Breaking into the science writing field can be daunting due to the scarcity of mid- to low-range markets, but the field is rewarding. You don’t have to have a science background to be a successful science writer. John McPhee, famous for his lyrical geology articles in The New Yorker (some of which are collected in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Annals of the Former World), studied English, not geology. If you do have a science background, that can help you, but overcoming your training to use technical language may be an obstacle.
While almost every writers’ organization seems to offer travel writing courses, science writing courses are rare. Health and medical writing courses are most commonly taught, but colleges and universities occasionally offer more general science or environmental writing courses. Be sure to look carefully at the instructor’s publications before deciding whether to take the course. Seminars on science, environmental and medical writing are sometimes offered at regional or national conferences. These courses and seminars can be a great introduction to the field or help you polish your skills.
Some science writers, particularly those aiming at a staff position, may find a graduate degree is the way to go. Graduate degrees are expensive, however, so consider your options carefully. Some respected science and medical writing graduate programs are offered at MIT, Columbia, University of California–Santa Cruz and Boston University.
Several professional organizations provide networking opportunities and resources for science writers. Many offer discounted student membership, and some resources are available to nonmembers.
- National Association of Science Writers
- American Medical Writers Association
- Society of Environmental Journalism
Joining local and regional organizations can also be a great way to network.
Read All About It
In addition to the basic freelance writing books, these books for science writers provide more specific information about everything from finding stories and markets to tips for conveying complex technical information clearly.
Ideas Into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing, by Elise Hancock (2003)
This slim book leans more towards craft than marketing, and provides a solid and enjoyable introduction to how to write about science.
A Field Guide for Science Writers (1st ed.), eds. Deborah Blum and Mary Knudson (out of print)
A Field Guide for Science Writers (2nd ed.), eds. Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig
These two editions have very different content, and both are a mine of information for the aspiring science writer. They cover different markets and types of writing in detail, with contributions from leading science writers.
Everyone knows about the big general science magazines like Discover and National Geographic, which are prestigious and pay well, but are also hard to break into. Mid-range specialized magazines like Archaeology and Astronomy may be better targets for some, but they don’t have equivalents in all science disciplines.
Fortunately, many magazines accept science stories with the right angle. A forestry magazine might be interested in an article on how a study on bird ecology impacts forest management. Alumni magazines frequently publish articles about science by professors or alumni of the institution. Ecotravel is a booming trend frequently covered by travel magazines.
Don’t discount other ways to make ends meet–writing about science for nonprofit organizations, private labs, and businesses is the bread and butter of many science writers, if less glamorous than being a staff writer for Discover.
As with any other writing niche, science writers can break in with good, timely writing and perseverance. So research those markets, start sending queries and don’t give up!